Well-heeled candidates sink millions of dollars of personal money into races for open congressional seats

By: - April 28, 2022 12:00 pm

The political drama in North Carolina’s 1st Congressional district is focused on the Democratic primary, whose winner could succeed incumbent U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield. But two Republican candidates for that seat have raised nearly as much for their campaigns — from their own funds — as the two most prominent Democrats combined.  

Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson has loaned his campaign nearly $1.1 million, far exceeding the $94,000 other contributors have donated. Roberson is CEO of the nursing home company Carrolton Facility Management. He lists his $17,636 mayor’s salary and a $15,000 salary from a limited liability company as sources of earned income on his financial disclosure form, as well as rental and investment income.  

Also from Rocky Mount, Republican Sandy Smith loaned her campaign $442,000, but has repaid most of it. Her campaign finance report shows more than $812,000 raised from donors toward a total of $1.2 million. Smith’s campaign website describes her as a business executive, but her financial disclosure report was not available. Butterfield defeated Smith in the general election two years ago.  

Six other Republicans have filed for the primary, including Brad Murphy of Macon, who loaned his campaign $150,000 and Billy Strickland of Wilson, who gave his campaign a $130,000 loan.

Democratic candidates have an advantage in the district, which was drawn to have more Democratic voters than Republican. Former state Sen. Erica Smith of Halifax County and Sen. Don Davis of Snow Hill are the most prominent of four Democrats in the primary. Smith raised about $785,000 through March, and Davis raised about $407,000. 

A burgeoning trend

Candidates for years have been using their own money to run for office. Notably, in North Carolina, Republican Robert Pittenger of Charlotte, a former state senator and U.S. House member, loaned his campaign $1.2 million in an unsuccessful 2008 bid to become lieutenant governor, the Center for Public Integrity reported; he loaned his congressional campaign $2.3 million four years later.  

The practice appears to be more common this year, with candidates seeking to gain an edge in congressional races where no incumbents are running.   

In-person early voting starts today and ends at 3 p.m. on May 14 in the statewide primary that concludes May 17.  

The interest from 1st District Republican candidates might indicate they think they can capitalize on what is expected to be a good year for GOP candidates, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic campaign consultant.  

Mills attributed the flurry of Republican candidates who filed to run in a host of contests partly to the election cycle. The sitting president’s party typically loses seats in Congress in midterm elections. Polls show low approval ratings for President Joe Biden.  

“Particularly around the time of filing, I think Republicans were smelling blood in the water,” Mills said. “Biden’s numbers were not good, and they’re not improving. A lot could change over the summer.” 

Though voting statistics show Democrats have an edge in the 1st District, their advantage is not as significant as it is in several others: the 2nd District, which covers the northern half of Wake County; the 4th District, which includes Durham, Orange, Alamance, Granville, Person, and a bit of Caswell; and the 12th District, which encompasses the northern half of Mecklenburg County and a piece of western Cabarrus.  

Open swing seat draws several self-funders

Republican Kelly Daughtry, who is running in her party’s primary for the 13th District open seat, is the biggest self-funder in the state so far, having loaned her campaign $2.15 million. She received about $250,000 from individual donors through March, according to her campaign finance report. She reported a salary of about $120,000 from her law firm. Daughtry, Woodard, Lawrence, & Starling, as well as income from rental properties and farmland. She has an expansive investment portfolio, according to her financial disclosure.  

The 13th District has no incumbent. The open seat is part of the reason that the primaries have attracted candidates with money to spend on their own campaigns, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College. Self-financed candidates don’t have to spend time fundraising and can get early traction in a campaign, he said. 

“We’ve all seen her advertising,” McLennan said of Daughtry. “She’s going from a position of being relatively unknown to at least being in the conversation.” 

Campaigns are able to purchase ad time at lower rates than political action committees can, CNN noted in a report on self-funding candidates nationwide. This means money from candidate campaign accounts for political ads goes farther.  

“Particularly on the Republican side, this could be kind of a pre-emptive strike,” McLennan said. “She was the first to get campaign ads on the air.” 

Self-funding doesn’t  guarantee a ticket to the general election, of course. Famously, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg spent more than $1 billion on a presidential run that lasted just four months, ABC News reported.  

Republican 13th District candidate Bo Hines of Winston-Salem has the backing of the Club for Growth, which is running ads supporting him. Hines also has the support of former President Donald Trump. Hines, however, reported loaning his campaign $525,000 of the $984,000 he’d raised by the end of March.  

Hines reported income from a blind trust and a $24,000 annual salary from the Charlotte-based marketing firm DHA of the Carolinas.  

Most of the $397,000 in campaign cash 13th District GOP primary candidate Chad Slotta raised came from his $335,000 loan. Slotta, who lives in Holly Springs, reported an annual salary of $171,000 from a company that sells computer keyboard accessories and about $60,000 from a conservative Christian organization known as Slotta Global Mission.  

Republican candidate Kent Keirsey of Apex loaned his campaign $200,000 of the $602,000 it had raised. Keirsey is a president and co-founder of a new real estate company called Acre, and reported a $54,000 salary. He also reported income from 2021 mutual fund sales.  

Sen. Wiley Nickel of Cary is the biggest self-funder of Democrats running for U.S. House seats this year. In his 13th District primary race, Nickel loaned his campaign $900,000 of the $1.4 million it had raised through the end of March.  

Nickel, a lawyer, reported income from a family agribusiness and rental property, as well as a $120,000 salary from his law firm.  

Sam Searcy, a former state senator running in the Democratic primary, included $200,000 in loans to the $45,000 he raised from other donors. His financial disclosure report was not available. Note: this story been updated to accurately reflect the amount of outside contributions raised by the Searcy campaign.

The inability to pour significant sums into their campaigns leaves candidates in big fields at a disadvantage. Nathan Click, a Morrisville Air Force veteran, for instance, raised more from individual donors than did Searcy, but his loan to his campaign was much smaller, at about $7,000.  

Click said he was inspired to run for Congress because democracy is under attack. He participates in candidate forums and campaigns door-to-door, but knows that the candidates with more money have a leg up.  

“The need for the sickening amount of money in politics right now hurts our democracy,” Click said. “There are lots of good people. I know many who would be wonderful representatives, but they’re simply priced out.”

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.